This section contains strategies for increasing your income without going deeper into debt. A loan is not income, and it often makes a person’s financial situation worse by making them pay yet another bill.

COVID-Related Assistance: The federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency is over. Therefore, many COVID-related assistance programs have ended. Throughout this guide, we indicate which programs are still in effect.

woman saying "Yes!"

Food Access and Discounted Essentials

Many charities provide free food, free clothing, and other essentials. Catholic Charities locations across Illinois offer assistance regardless of your religion. A financial coach can also help direct you to resources.

SNAP/LINK (Food Stamps) Recipients: All Illinois SNAP recipients saw their benefits reduced in March 2023. To learn more about this change, including how you can maximize and potentially increase your benefits, visit the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s info page.

For food assistance, look up food banks in your area using IllinoisFoodBanks.org’s search tool. FeedingIllinois.org also lists food banks throughout Illinois.

Tax Refunds/Credits

You could be eligible for thousands of dollars in tax refunds by filing your taxes. This is especially true if you have children and are lower income. The filing deadline is April 15, 2024, and there is no penalty for filing late if you don’t owe the IRS any money. File as soon as possible to get your refund.

Many are eligible for free, online tax-preparation services. Most programs to help people file taxes for free are available from January to October.

  • Visit GetMyPaymentIL.org to learn more about how to file your taxes for free. They have a hotline (888-553-9777) for people without computer access and for people with more complicated tax questions.
  • The AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program provides free tax preparation assistance to people over 50 and people with lower incomes. They offer in-person or virtual assistance across Illinois.
  • In Chicago, Ladder Up offers free tax assistance to eligible families. Ladder Up also has pro bono attorneys available for more complicated tax situations.

For additional help, Chicago/Cook County’s  2-1-1 helpline lists additional tax prep resources.

If you have children, you may be eligible for the Child Tax Credit, which is offered to qualifying families with children and is a credit of up to $2,000 per qualifying child that you receive upon filing your taxes. While this credit was increased in 2021 due to the pandemic, these enhancements have since expired and the credit has returned to its pre-pandemic levels. Visit the IRS website to view eligibility requirements. You can also use the IRS’s interactive tool to see if you qualify.

If you still haven’t received one or more stimulus checks that were issued in 2020-2021, you may claim the Recovery Rebate Credit on your taxes to receive it.

Many lower income people are also eligible to receive money from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Learn if you are eligible for the EITC. Keep in mind there is both a federal EITC and an Illinois EITC.  If you qualify for the federal EITC, it is extremely likely you qualify for the Illinois EITC.

Filing your taxes online and using a bank account number for direct deposit will help you get the money much more quickly. If you didn’t file taxes in the last two years but think you might be eligible for these tax credits, you can still file a paper return for those years to receive your past refunds.

Tip! Online freelance work can be a source of quick cash, but don’t rely on it.

You may hear about a number of ways to make cash online through websites that offer various types of freelance work such as taking surveys, testing websites, online tutoring, and other tasks. These include sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk, Tutor.com, UserTesting.com, Upwork, Freelancer.com, and survey sites like Swagbucks and MyPoints.

While these sites are legitimate and worth looking into if you are really low on funds, they tend to overpromise the amount of cash you can realistically expect to get. Most function as a job board where individuals or companies can post tasks, and some task postings on these sites may also be scams. For some of the sites, you may need to pay a fee in order to browse and apply for postings or receive your payments. Browsing to find tasks that fit your needs and skills can be time-consuming. At the end of the day, they are usually not an efficient or reliable way of making money. Proceed with caution.

Cash Assistance Programs

Over the last few years, both the Cook County and the Chicago governments have launched cash assistance programs, but none are currently open for applications. We will keep this page updated on whether these programs re-open for new applicants.

Saving for College

The Illinois First Steps program was created to help Illinois families jump start their savings for higher education and vocational training with a $50 deposit. Children born or adopted on or after January 1, 2023, with parents who are residents of Illinois can receive a deposit through Bright Start or Bright Directions.

The parent or legal guardian of the eligible child must take steps to officially “claim” the funds before the child’s 10th birthday. To do so, the parent or legal guardian must have an IL 529 college savings account for the eligible child. To learn more about the program, eligibility requirements, and opening a 529 account, visit IllinoisFirstSteps.com.

COVID-19 Funeral Assistance

The federal government has a program to reimburse the costs of funerals for deaths attributed to COVID-19 (according to the death certificate). The maximum benefit is $9,000 per burial. To be eligible, the funeral must have occurred after January 20, 2020. For more information, including required documentation, go to their website. To apply, call 844-684-6333 (multilingual services available). They are not accepting online applications.

While the official federal COVID-19 emergency is over, this program will continue to provide funeral assistance until September 2025. Even if the funeral took place years ago, you may still be eligible for this benefit.


Many churches provide financial and other assistance regardless of religion. For example, Catholic Charities agencies across Illinois have financial assistance programs for families.

Tip! Crypto is Risky!

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are risky investments. Their use is expanding – for example, as an alternative to currency exchanges or remesas (remittances) – but be wary of hidden fees and extra costs. There are often hefty fees attached to investing in crypto, from putting your money into a crypto wallet, to buying crypto on one of the exchange marketplaces, to cashing back out – and fees are likely even higher using a crypto ATM.


Before taking out a loan, which can often worsen your financial situation, tap into your savings. If you have already exhausted any money in a savings account, you may also have retirement savings (401k, IRA, etc.). It is never ideal to deplete your savings or tap into retirement accounts, but it is better than falling into a cycle of never ending, high-interest debt. There are tax consequences for tapping into retirement savings before retirement, and you may have to adjust how you save for retirement going forward. You may want to consult a licensed accountant or a certified financial planner. Be wary of so-called “financial advisors” whose primary motivation may be to earn a commission by selling you mutual funds, stocks, or other financial products.

Sell Assets

If you’re willing to part with an item (i.e., gold jewelry, designer clothes, or antiques) consider selling it rather than getting a pawnshop loan to avoid paying financing charges. Selling an item creates income, which can be used to payoff debts; a loan is not income, it is debt, which can put you even deeper into a financial hole.

Poshmark is a widely used app for selling items. Many folks also have success using Facebook Marketplace but be on the lookout for potential scams. Most Illinois pawn shops charge around 240% APR for a pawn loan.

Paid Research Opportunities

You have likely seen ads for paid research opportunities. Such ads are commonly present on public transportation. These opportunities are frequently done in the context of health-related research. The compensation for these opportunities varies, but they are, in our experience, a legitimate way to earn some extra cash while also performing a public service. We are currently offering a paid research opportunity for people with experience with high-cost loans – participants who complete a 30-minute research interview will receive a $25 gift card. Sign up at weprosperil.org/paid-research-opportunities.

Class Actions

Chances are, you have received notices through email or through the mail notifying you that you may be eligible to receive relief under a “class action settlement.” Millions of consumers received hundreds of dollars in 2022 through a class action settlement with Facebook. If you receive a notice of a class action settlement, do not ignore it. Typically, you can collect your settlement dollars by completing a form online, but you must do so before a deadline that will be specified in the notice. Your settlement dollars can take many months or even over a year to arrive, so don’t make purchases or take on debt with the expectation that you will be receiving settlement funds. If you’re unsure whether a notice is legitimate, Google the company name + “class action” for more details.

Restaurant Employees: The Illinois Restaurant Employee Relief Fund (IRAEF) provides grants to Illinois restaurant employees experiencing a hardship, such as “accident, illness, injury, death of an immediate family member or natural disaster.” Learn more and apply here. Note that this is not a government program. It is provided by the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Prefer Talking to a Live Person? Ask a Financial Coach.

Capital Good Fund’s Financial Coaching Department provides one-on-one financial advice to any Illinois resident. Starting at $15 per month, the nonprofit can create a plan with you and can advocate on your behalf with creditors. They also offer a credit-builder program for $5 per month. Call 866-584-3651 (English or Spanish).

Working Credit is a nonprofit that offers free financial counseling to help you build your credit, understand the credit system, and create a plan to reach your financial goals. Their credit building counseling program includes unlimited one-on-one support and coaching for 12 months for free. Sign up online (English and Spanish).

Man getting advice

The City of Aurora’s Financial Empowerment Center provides free, high-quality, one-on-one financial counseling to low-and moderate-income residents of the Aurora region. Learn more.

Many credit unions also offer free or low cost financial coaching. Check with your local credit union to learn about their offerings, and check the list under Option 3: Lower Cost Loans if you need help finding a credit union.


This resource guide is produced in partnership with New America Chicago, Woodstock Institute, and Financial Inclusion for All Illinois.

Special thanks to all the hardworking nonprofits, socially-conscious lenders, and community partners who are helping restore wealth in our communities. Your work is so important! Thanks also to Jane Doyle, Brent Adams, Rob Mayo, Amy Eisenstein, Vanessa Rangel, Gordon Mayer, Meegan Dugan Adell, Winston Berkman-Breen at Student Borrower Protection Center, and Bob Palmer at Housing Action Illinois for their work on this project.